Civil Rights Act of 1866 Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Reconstruction Era in American history was the time when the political, economic, and social systems were rebuilt after the Civil War. A key part of this was the new role to be played by the freed slaves. As the first national civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 sought to place African Americans on an equal footing with white Americans. Senator Lyman Trumbull, from Illinois, introduced the initial bill. In its final form, it had passed both houses of Congress by March 1866; was vetoed by President Johnson; and within two weeks, both houses voted to override the veto. Opposition to the bill was two-fold. Some did not believe that the Thirteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to pass a law dealing with affairs within a state, while others were against it because of racial prejudice. This was the first step in attempting to end racial discrimination in the United States.

Summary Overview

The Reconstruction Era in American history was the time when the political, economic, and social systems were rebuilt after the Civil War. A key part of this was the new role to be played by the freed slaves. As the first national civil rights law, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 sought to place African Americans on an equal footing with white Americans. Senator Lyman Trumbull, from Illinois, introduced the initial bill. In its final form, it had passed both houses of Congress by March 1866; was vetoed by President Johnson; and within two weeks, both houses voted to override the veto. Opposition to the bill was two-fold. Some did not believe that the Thirteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to pass a law dealing with affairs within a state, while others were against it because of racial prejudice. This was the first step in attempting to end racial discrimination in the United States.

Defining Moment

In 1863, as the Union forces were moving toward victory on the battlefield, the question of slavery moved to the forefront. The Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in the states that made up the Confederacy, but the legislation's post-war validity was uncertain. Various constitutional amendments to end slavery were proposed, with what was to become the Thirteenth Amendment being passed by Congress in January 1865 and ratified by enough states in December 1865. This led to concerns as to how the rights of African Americans might be secured. Since many believed that the Southern states would not grant equal rights to freed slaves, Congress acted to insure to them many of the economic and political rights necessary to be truly equal. Thus, this first civil rights law, although limited in scope, was passed with hopes that it would transform race relations.

At the close of the Civil War, how the Southern states would be re-integrated into the Union was a contentious topic, even within the North. This was one topic on which President Andrew Johnson and Congress strongly disagreed. Thus, when a Civil Rights Act was first proposed and passed in 1865, President Johnson vetoed it. When Sen. Trumbull introduced the bill in January 1866, he and his allies pressed hard to pass it with enough votes to override the anticipated veto. Upon doing this in April, the law became an important symbol. Part of it was incorporated into the Fourteenth Amendment, which specifically gave all citizens the constitutional protection of due process in legal matters as well as equal protection before the law. Many saw the Act to be of such importance that, after the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, they passed the law as part of the Enforcement Act of 1870, in order for it to have a stronger Constitutional foundation.

Although initially the Civil Rights Act had some limiting effect upon the actions of those seeking to oppress African Americans, this was soon whittled away by the courts and by terrorist actions of hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Thus, while the law's sponsors had expectations that it would be a force to move the country in a positive direction, as regarded racial equality, in the end, it was only of limited use in keeping the worst from happening. Although the provision dealing with “real” property was not always observed, this law has been the foundation for the legal barrier to racial and ethnic discrimination in housing and real estate transactions.

Author Biography

The Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed by the Thirty-ninth Congress of the United States, which ran from March 4, 1865 to March 4, 1867. Although the Thirty-ninth Congress officially began on March 4, it met only until March 14 to organize and then adjourned until December 4, as was the norm at that time. The election for this Congress was the same one in which Abraham Lincoln was elected to his second term as president, and the Republicans outnumbered Democrats by more than three to one in both houses. However, only a month into the term, Andrew Johnson became president due to Lincoln's assassination. Congress was not called back into a special session, and this was the source of many of the problems between Johnson and the Thirty-ninth and Fortieth Congresses. The sponsor of the bill, Lyman Trumbull, had originally been an anti-slavery Democrat, but had become a Republican.

Document Analysis

As with many laws, the essence of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was contained in a very small section of the bill. Most of the bill was concerned with jurisdiction and the enforcement of the law. Accordingly, the first paragraph of the Act contains the heart of what was trying to be achieved through its passage. This was a partial definition of citizenship, economic rights of all citizens, and uniformity in legal punishments. Knowing the difficulties which former slaves were experiencing, especially in the Southern States, it was hoped that whites in all parts of the nation would accept this Act's statement of equality, and that it would push the process toward racial equality.

The Civil Rights Act stated that “all persons born in the United States” were citizens of the United States. This was to change the Supreme Court decision of 1857 that Dred Scott was a slave, not a citizen. Obviously, there were some exceptions, such as children of foreign embassy staff, or Native Americans living on treaty lands. However, having been a slave no longer meant that one was not a citizen. Declaring that everyone born in the United States was a citizen created a foundation for granting the rights, which whites had taken for granted, to people of all races.

The majority of the rights enumerated in the first paragraph were economic in nature. For an individual to be free, the individual has to have the means to survive. Thus the right to create contracts; lease, buy, sell, or hold property; to inherit; and to have “security of person and property” is necessary. Although some states later ignored these rights without interference from the federal government, the intent of the bill was that there would be equality of economic opportunity.

Within the legal realm, this Civil Rights Act clearly gave African Americans the right to “give evidence” and not to be punished any more severely than would “white citizens.” As with other parts of the law, this was not followed in many Southern states after the end of Reconstruction. Whether through specific laws limiting African Americans' judicial rights or through widely accepted intimidation, African-Americans were placed in a second class status.

During Reconstruction, this Act and similar laws gave African Americans some hope that change might occur. However, this hope very quickly vanished as the post-Civil War society in which they lived remained as white-oriented as it always had been. While the federal courts were given jurisdiction and the executive branch granted the power to enforce this Act, in the later nineteenth century, there was little desire to do this, and most African Americans did not have the resources to press the issue.

Essential Themes

Although in the judicial arena much of this Act fell by the wayside, its importance as the first piece of national civil rights legislation cannot be overestimated. The fact that the national government was seeking a legal way to give full rights to citizens of whatever race was important. It recognized that it was not enough to grant freedom to the slaves and to pass constitutional amendments. True freedom should be granted to the former slaves and their descendants. During Reconstruction, additional civil rights acts were passed by Congress, with other laws referred to as enforcement acts, intended to support them and the Thirteenth through Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Thus the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was the first step in the process to protect the rights of African Americans and, later, other minority groups. Although after Reconstruction, many of the provisions were overturned or ignored, and no further civil rights legislation was passed until 1957, this first Civil Rights Act was a landmark in moving the country toward social equality.

This Act was also important in the way it clearly outlined the fact that Federal officials had the jurisdiction and responsibility to enforce its provisions. Although the supremacy of the federal government had been accepted as a legal precedent for decades, there were (and are) areas, in which the states have specific rights and jurisdiction. As some of the areas outlined in this law normally fell into the states' jurisdiction, it was written with specific language, giving the national government jurisdiction even in these areas. (This was one reason some believed it was on shaky Constitutional ground.) Expanding on the power given to the national government to enforce these rights, the Act authorized the full force of the government to secure the rights, since in the next-to-last paragraph it stated that “it shall be lawful for the President … to employ such part of the land or naval forces … as shall be necessary.” This was a very unsubtle reminder for the Southern states of what had recently occurred. Overall, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was a major symbolic step toward racial equality, even if its implementation fell short of its sponsors' vision.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Civil Rights Act of 1866.” A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774–1875. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 2003. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • Goldberg, Barry M. The Unknown Architects of Civil Rights” Thaddeus Stevens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charles Sumner. Los Angeles: Critical Minds Press, 2011. Print.
  • Office of the Historian. “The Civil Rights Bill of 1866.” Historical Highlights. Washington: United States House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • “Reconstruction: The Second Civil War.” The American Experience. PBS Online, 2005. Web. 20 March 2014.
  • Rutherglen, George A. Civil Rights in the Shadow of Slavery: The Constitution, Common Law, and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
  • Smith, John David. A Just and Lasting Peace: A Documentary History of Reconstruction. New York: Signet Classics, 2013. Print.
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